Fiction > Harvard Classics > Pierre Corneille > Polyeucte
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Pierre Corneille (1606–1684).  Polyeucte.
The Harvard Classics.  1909–14.
 
Act IV
 
 
POLYEUCTE. CLEON. Three Other GUARDS


  POLY.  What is thy will?
 
  CLEON.        Pauline would see my lord.
 
  POLY.  Ah, how my heart quails at that single word!
Thee, Felix, I o’ercame within my cell,
Laughed at thy threats if death and torture fell;        5
Yet hast thou still one arm to rouse my fears,
The rest I scorn, but dread thy daughter’s tears!
One only talisman remains; great God, ’tis mine,
Sufficient for my every need His strength divine!
O thou, dear saint, thy scars all healed, white-robed, in glory crowned,        10
Plead that I too may victory win, thou who hast victory found!
Nearchus, who hast clasped in Heaven that dear, that pierced hand,
Plead that thy friend, who wrestles here, may safely by thee stand!
Ye Guards, one last kind service, I would ask,
Well may ye grant it, ’tis an easy task:        15
I do not seek deliverance from these thralls,  [Looks at his chains.
I do not care to scale my prison walls,
But, since three warriors armed can surely guard
One fettered man in safest watch and ward,—
Go one, and beg of great Severus’ grace        20
That he would deign to meet me face to face;
To him would I a secret now impart,
Which much concerns his joy and peace of heart.
 
  CLEON.  On willing foot, my lord, do I obey.
 
  POLY.  Severus must this kindly service pay;        25
Ah, lose no time, time now has fleetest wings.
 
  CLEON.  Full soon to thee thy prayer Severus brings.  [Exit CLEON. GUARDSMEN retire to background.
 
  POLY.  The fount is pure, yet bitter waters flow,
Sin taints—men poison what was made all fair.
They will not choose immortal streams: they go        30
To seek for pleasure—but find only care:
Their pleasure wed to strife—ah, death the gate of life,—
Christ’s servants, none but they His crown shall wear!
          So pain
          Is gain:        35
        Count not the cost!
        The world well lost,
        His Heaven to share!
 
O Pleasure, think not that I sigh for thee,
Thy charms, that once enslaved, no more delight;        40
In Christ’s dear name I bid the tempter flee,
His foes are mine,—unlovely in my sight.
The mighty from their seat He hurls beneath His feet,
His fan is in His hand, His vengeful sword is bright.
          Their crown        45
          Cast down.
        All hopes most dear
        They cherish here
        Shall end in night.
 
O Decius! Tiger! Pitiless! Athirst        50
With quenchless rage, for blood of Christ’s redeemed—
Armenia shall arise, by thee accursed,
On her at last has Light of Asia beamed,
And our Deliverer from the holy east
Shall dash the cup from thy Belshazzar feast!        55
          Secure,
          And pure,
        Christ’s saints shall reign,
        And, purged by pain,
        For aye endure!        60
 
Let Felix sacrifice me to thine ire,
Yea, let my rival captivate the soul
Of her who now with Decius doth conspire
To chain immortal hope to earthly goal;
Let earth-bound men pursue the world’s desire,        65
Sense charms not him who doth to Heaven aspire!
          Hail pain!
          Disdain
        All Earthly love,
        To seek above        70
        A holier fire!
 
Oh, Love that passeth knowledge be my stay,
And fire my heart to beat alone for thee!
Sun of my soul?—oh, flash one purest ray
In that last hour supreme—to comfort me,        75
So life’s brief night shall merge in endless day!
          Come, Death!
          Last breath
        Shall praise thy name,
        The same, the same,        80
        For aye! For aye!
 
O heavenly fire, most pure, embracing all,
Come, shield me from Pauline, else must I fall!
I see her, but no more as once I saw—
I am encased in armour without flaw:        85
To eyes that gaze alone on heavenly light,
Naught else is pure, or dear, or fair, or bright!
 
Enter PAULINE

With what intent, Pauline, hast thou come here?
Have I a friend to aid, or foe to fear?
Is it Christ’s soldier that thou com’st to greet?        90
Or wouldst thou sink my triumph in defeat?
If thou wouldst bid me spurn the debt I owe,
Not Decius, but Pauline, my deadliest foe!
 
  PAUL.  All, save thyself, to thee, my love, are friends:
Love but thyself, love me,—thy torment ends.        95
Alone thou seal’st thy doom, alone wouldst shed
That blood by all Armenia honoured.
Yes, thou art saved, if thou for mercy plead;
Demand thy death, and thou are lost indeed.
Think of the worth of this self-hated life,        100
And think in pity of Pauline,—thy wife!
Think of the people that their prince adores,
Think of the honours Felix on thee pours!
Oh, I am nothing, nothing unto thee,
But, husband, think how dear thou art to me!        105
Think how the path of glory on thee opes,
Thou dearest lodestar of a nation’s hopes!
Shall blood of kings be but the headsman’s sport?
Is life a toy wherewith thy death to court?
 
  POLY.  I think of more than this; I know what thou wouldst say.        110
Our life is ours to use, and we that debt must pay.
What life is this men love? An idle, empty dream,
Where nothing can endure,—where all things only seem.
Death ends their every joy which fickle Fortune leaves,
They gain a royal throne to learn how pomp deceives;        115
They gather wealth that men may envy their estate,
They clear a path by blood, so envy turns to hate.
Such vast ambition mine as Cæsar never knew,—
Death bounds it not, for death is but its servant true.
Peace that the world ne’er gave, and cannot take away,—        120
That peace, Pauline, is mine, mine wholly, mine for aye!
Nor time, nor fate, nor chance, nor cruel war,
Can touch this peace, or this my kingdom mar.
Is this poor life—the creature of a day—
For endless peace too great a price to pay?        125
 
  PAUL.  ‘Out on these Christian dreams!’ my reason cries;
Whene’er they speak of truth, they utter lies.
Thou say’st: ‘To win such prize my life is naught!’
But is thy life thine own? How was it bought?
Our life an heirloom to our country due;        130
What gave thee birth, demands thy service too?
Pay, then thy debt to her who has the right!
 
  POLY.  Ah, for my country I would gladly fight!
I know the glory of a hero’s name,
I feel the thrill,—I recognise the claim.        135
My life I owe to whom I owe my sword—
But most to Him who gave it—to the Lord!
Oh, if to die for fatherland be sweet,
To die for Him—my God—what word is meet?
 
  PAUL.  Which God?        140
 
  POLY.  Hush! hush! Pauline; the God who hears
And answers prayers,—gives hopes, assuages fears.
Thy gods are deaf and senseless, maimed and weak,
Tongues, mouths they have, and yet they cannot speak.
The Christians’ God alone is mine,—is thine,        145
Jehovah only rules—supreme—divine!
 
  PAUL.  Adore Him in thy heart, but say no word!
 
  POLY.  What! Can I call Jove and Jehovah—Lord?
 
  PAUL.  One moment feign. Ah, let Severus go!
Let but my father all his kindness show!        150
 
  POLY.  Another Father mine! His love most dear
Removes me from a world begirt with fear.
For life’s stern race too weak, too frail am I,
So, by kind death, He gives me Victory.
Pure from the holy font—(His mercies never fail!)        155
He brings His barque to port, when it hath scarce set sail.
Couldst thou but understand how poor this earth,
Couldst thou but grasp how great this second birth!
And yet, why speak of treasure rare concealed
From one to whom light is yet unrevealed?        160
 
  PAUL.  O cruel! I can strangle pain no more!
Is this the fruit of all thy heavenly lore?
They say thy Christ His enemies did bless,
Thou addest insult to my deep distress.
How is my soul so dark—which was so fair?—        165
Thou call’dst me ‘lovely’—‘dear’—‘beyond compare!’—
Of my bereavement have I said no word,
I stilled my grief that I might soothe my lord!
They say that love has wings, and all they say is true,
For all thy love has flown; yet can I ne’er undo        170
The vows I made, the troth I plighted binds me still!
Thou fain wouldst quit thy wife, and thou shalt have thy will.
Oh, but to leave my side with rapture, ecstasy,
No jealous Christ can will: why grudge me one poor sigh?
This joy, this transport fierce, endeavour to conceal.        175
I do not share thy creed, but I, at least, can feel!
Why gloat o’er heavenly gain, crowns, palms, I know not what—
Where Polyeucte is blest, but where Pauline is not?
Soul, body, spirit, I am thy true wife, to own
That I am but a bar to happiness unknown!        180
 
  POLY.  Alas!
 
  PAUL.        O! that ‘Alas!’—so faint, so tame!
Yet, if repentant from thy heart it came,
’Twould waken hope, still brief, and banish fears:
I wait the birth of thy reluctant tears.        185
 
  POLY.  These tears I shed! O, might the Spirit pour
Through them the light, the light that I adore—
Then were my only grief all swept away,
For thou wouldst join me in the realms of day!
Else Heaven itself would have its bitterness,        190
Should I look down to witness thy distress!
O God, who lov’st the dust on which Thy breath
Hath stamped Thine image true—save her from death!
The only death that kills, and let my love
From Heaven woo her to the realms above!        195
Lord, hear my call! My inmost heart now see,
Who lives a Christian life must Christian be!
Her nature god-like, stamped from print divine;
She must be sealed Thine own, yes, only Thine!
Say, must she burn, condemned to depths of hell?—        200
Thy Will be done—Who doest all things well!
 
  PAUL.  O wretch, what words are these? Thou dost desire——
 
  POLY.  To snatch thee from a never-ending fire.
 
  PAUL.  Or else?
 
  POLY.        O God, I trust to Thy control,        205
Who when we think not, canst illume the soul!
The when—the how—is His—here am I dumb,—
I wait—I wait—That blesséd hour will come!
 
  PAUL.  Oh, leave illusions! Love me!
 
  POLY.        Thee I love        210
Far more than self, but less than God above!
 
  PAUL.  For love’s dear sake, ah, listen to my prayer!
 
  POLY.  For love’s dear sake—await the answer there!
 
  PAUL.  To leave me here is naught! Thou wouldst seduce my soul!
 
  POLY.  Heaven is scarce Heaven for me, if thou reach not the goal.        215
 
  PAUL.  O fancy—fooled!
 
  POLY.        Nay, led by heavenly light!
 
  PAUL.  Thy faith is blindness!
 
  POLY.        Faith is more than sight!
 
  PAUL.  Ah, death, strange rival to a wife’s pure love!        220
 
  POLY.  This world our rival with the joys above!
 
  PAUL.  Go, monster! woo thy death! Thou lov’dst me never!
 
  POLY.  Go, seek the world! and yet I love thee ever!
 
  PAUL.  Yes, I will go—if absence bring relief—
 
Enter SEVERUS, FABIAN and GUARDS

Who comes to invade, ah, not to cure my grief?
        225
Severus! Who could guess that thou wouldst show
Revenge unworthy o’er a prostrate foe?
 
  POLY.  Unworthy thee the thought, Pauline, for I
Severus called, and he hath heard my cry.
My importunity he will excuse,        230
My prayer I know that he will not refuse.
Severus—this—the treasure that was mine—
To thy most tender care I now resign:
To thee, as noblest man that I have known;—
Since earthly ties and joys I must disown.        235
The gift is worthy thee,—I know thy worth
Is great, but she no equal hath on earth.
My life, the bar,—my death the link shall be,—
Oh, grudge me not my dear brief ecstasy!
Oh, ease the heart that once was hers,—and guide        240
Her doubting footsteps to the Crucified!
This my last benison! All else is poor!
Await the promised light! Believe! Endure!
But words are vain!  [POLYEUCTE signs to GUARDS to conduct him back to prison. Exeunt POLYEUCTE and GUARDS.]
 
  SEV.        Most vain! No word have I        245
Such blindness must amaze! must stupefy!
Nay, this is frenzy! I cannot conceive
A mind so strange! Mine ears cannot believe
That one who loved thee—yet, who would not love
A face that must the great immortals move?—        250
Blessed by thy heart!—Thy sweetest lips to taste!—
Then leave, refuse, spurn—yield with clamorous haste,
To yield a girl so dear—so pure—so fair!
And of that gift to make thy rival heir—
This beggars madness! Or the Christian bliss        255
Beyond man’s soul to grasp! To spurn thy kiss!—
We treasure barter for a just exchange,
But to buy pain for thee! Pauline, ’tis strange!
Not thus, ye Gods! Severus had been blind
To perfect bliss—had Fortune been more kind—        260
The only heaven for me is in thine eyes,
These are my kings, these my divinities!
To me—for thee—were death with torture dear;
But to renounce thee!
 
  PAUL.        Nay, I must not hear!        265
Thy words bring back the dear, the bygone days,
When I, a maid, might listen to thy praise:
Severus, thou must know my inmost heart;
I hear the knell bids Polyeucte depart.
He dies,—the victim of thine Emperor’s laws,        270
And thou, though innocent, art yet the cause.
Oh, if thy soul, to thy desires a slave,
See hope emerging from my husband’s grave—
Then will I wed with pain—despair embrace,—
But wed Severus? Never! ’Twere disgrace!        275
To light fresh torch from that pale, flickering fire—
Oh, bliss too monstrous! Thrice abhorred desire!
Back, hope! Back, happiness! The mate for me
When Polyeucte leaves my side—is Constancy!
Were this my will, were this, ye Gods, my fate—        280
To shame would memory turn, as love must yield to hate!
But generous art thou—most generous be!
His pardon will my father grant to thee.
He fears thee: more, if Polyeucte’s life he take,
For thee he slays him—yes, ’tis for thy sake.        285
Christ died for man—let pagan virtue dim
His fame: plead for thy foe! so rival him!
No easy boon I ask, there needs a soul most rare;
But when the fight is fierce—then is the victory fair.
To help a man to be what thou wouldst be        290
Is triumph that belongs alone to thee!
Let this suffice thee: she, whom thou hast loved,
She, who by thy great love was not unmoved,
Of thee, and of no other dares to crave
That thou, Severus, shouldst my husband save!        295
Farewell! of this thy labour gauge the scope:
If thou art less than I yet dare to hope,
Then tell me not! all else Pauline can bear!  [Exit PAULINE.
 
  SEV.  Where am I, Fabian? Has the crack of doom
Turned heaven to hell? made life a living tomb?        300
Nearer and dearer ever—but to go!
The prize within my grasp must I o’erthrow?
This—Fortune’s brimming cup, with poison filled,
She bids me drain;—so new-born hope is killed.
Before I proffer aught, I am refused;        305
Thus sad, amazed, ashamed, in doubt, abused,
I see the ghost I laid, to life revive,
The more seductive still the more I strive.
Ah! must a woman, sunk in deep despair,
Teach me that shame is base, and honour fair?        310
And while I madly shriek, ‘O love, be kind!’
Pauline, death-stricken, keeps an equal mind!
O generous, but stern! Must these dear eyes,
Because I love them, o’er love tyrannise?
’Tis not enough to lose thee, I must give        315
My aid—to make my faithless rival live!
’Tis not enough: his death I would not plan,
But I must save him! bless where I would ban!
 
  FABIAN.  Ah, let the whole crew light one funeral pyre;
Yes, let the daughter perish with her sire!        320
This curs’d Armenian is one hornet’s nest—
Crush all, then sail for Rome, ah! this were best!
She loves thee not. What canst thou hope to gain?
 
  SEV.  A glory that shall triumph over pain;
’Tis hers, and, by the Gods, it shall be mine!        325
Nor God nor fiend can sully such a shrine!
 
  FABIAN.  Speak low, for Jove has bolts, and Hell has ears!
The dangers of this course arouse my fears.
What? Decius implore a Nazarene to save!
’Tis death that hath thy heart; thou woo’st a grave.        330
His rage against the sect thou knowest well,
His power unbridled—his revenge is fell.
To plead for Christians is a task too great,
For man or God: thou rushest on thy fate.
 
  SEV.  Yes, such advice, I know, is much approved,        335
Yet not thus can Severus’ soul be moved.
To Fate unequal—equal to myself—
In duty’s path I go. For power and pelf
I never swerve where honour leads the way;
Come weal, come woe, her call I must obey.        340
Let fate depress an all unequal scale,
Let Clothe hold her distaff—I’ll not fail!
Yet one more word—this to thy private ear—
The fables that thou dost of Christians hear
Are fables only, coined, I know not why,        345
Distorted are they seen in Decius’ eye.
They practice the black art,—so all men say.
I sought to learn the laws that they obey,
And to discover what the secret guilt
The which to expiate their blood is spilt.        350
Yet priests of Cybele dark rites pursue
At Rome—untrammelled—this is nothing new:
To thousand gods men build, unchecked, their fanes,
The Christians’ God alone our state disdains.
Each foul Egyptian beast his temple rears,        355
Caligula a god to Roman ears—
Tiberius is enshrined—a Nero deified—
To Christ—to Christ alone—a temple is denied!
Such metamorphoses confuse the mind
As gods in cats, and saints in fiends we find;        360
As Ruler absolute Jehovah stands,
Alone o’er heaven and earth and hell commands,
While pagan gods each ’gainst the other strive,
And ne’er one queen is found o’er all the hive,
Now—(strike me dead, Jove’s tarrying thunderbolt!)        365
So many masters must provoke revolt.
And ah! where Christians live—there life is pure,
Vice dies untended, virtues all endure.
We give these men to rack, and cord, and flame,
While they forgive us—in their Pardoner’s name.        370
They no sedition raise, they ne’er rebel,
Rome makes them soldiers, and they serve her well.
They rage in battle, faithful ward they keep,
They fight like lions, but they die like sheep.
They serve the State: Rome’s servant must defend        375
Those who to might of Rome such succour lend.
Pauline, I will obey, whate’er befall;
The man who loseth honour loseth all.
 

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